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Steady as can be on the field, Birk is more unpredictable off it

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He may plug the middle of the Ravens' offensive line, but Matt Birk's life has always been more off-center.

In high school, Birk went out for the golf team before trying football. The road to the pros took him through Harvard. And, after signing his first contract, he moved in with ... his parents.

The only conventional thing about Birk is his unconventionality. During team breakfasts at the Ravens' complex, he eats granola brought from home. He is donating his brain to science, to help shed light on sports concussions. And, as many families are scaling back, in tough economic times, Birk and his wife last month welcomed their sixth child.

"We're like the Partridge Family," he said. "We're going to get a big bus, paint it a bunch of colors, drive it around and sing happy songs."

But for now, Birk, 35, will focus on his role as center on a Ravens' team seeking its second Super Bowl victory. A 14–year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl selection with the Minnesota Vikings, he has anchored the offensive line this season after signing in 2009 as a free agent in a swap of purple shirts.

He's the old man, and the C, of a unit that, to a man, rallies around their red-haired leader.

"We love him to death," tackle Michael Oher said. "I've learned so much from him — and I'd miss him a ton, if he retired."

Guard Ben Grubbs called the 310-pound Birk "the quarterback of the offensive line. Everything starts with him. He makes me better, for sure. He's giving his brain to science? They're going to need time to do research. There's an awful lot going on up there, in that [size 7 3/4] head."

Late-blooming prospect

Birk grew up in St. Paul, Minn., in a blue-collar enclave. Those who know him say that, even early on, he was strong-willed and stubborn, with a mind of his own.

"He was a good kid, I guess, and very adventurous. He always seemed to go against the grain, and he wanted to push the boundaries a little bit," said Pam Birk, his mother. "If we said, be home by 9, he'd get here at 9:05. There was nothing that he didn't want to try."

At 9, Birk went out for his Catholic grade-school football team. He quickly gave it up.

"I didn't care for the 'tough guy' mentality of the game," he said. "I thought, 'This isn't fun. I don't want to come out here and get yelled at.' "

Not until 10th grade did he try football again, and only then as a way to meet new friends.

The coach saw the tall, gangly kid at practice and smiled. Rich Kallok had labeled Birk a prospect in sixth grade, after seeing him as an altar boy in church.

"Matt was tallest, so he would carry the crucifix in the procession to start Mass," Kallok said. "I remember thinking, I hope he comes to Cretin-Derham Hall.

"He had no clue as to what to do — we had to teach him the three-point stance — but he learned quickly and was competitive."

Birk never thought he'd stick.

"I figured I'd play one year on the 'B' squad, period," he said. "I thought, I'll never make varsity because those guys are, like, men. But I made the team.

"That was 20 years ago. I've been trying to quit football ever since."

Same old Matt

Celebrity hasn't changed Birk, friends say. His roots run deep.

"He's still the same Matt I knew in high school," said Jim Runyon, who is godfather to one of Birk's children. "Some years ago, he called me and said, 'Want to go to a [Minnesota] Wild hockey game?'

"I said, 'Sure, who's going?'

" 'You, me and Randy Moss.' "

Nor does football run Birk's life. In Minnesota, a radio station asked him to host a weekly talk show, assuming it would deal with sports. Instead, Birk — an economics major — offered stock tips to listeners who phoned in to "Matt's Money."

"He has always done his own thing," said Colby Skelton, his roommate at Harvard. "Matt's not part of the herd. He's a grounded, salt-of-the-earth guy who works hard, speaks his mind, doesn't waver and doesn't give a [crap] what other people think."

For instance, Birk is one of a handful of current players to advocate larger pensions for NFL alumni because, he says, "giving back is the right thing to do."

It's a mantra he has embraced since high school. There, Birk worked in a soup kitchen on weekends, as did his parents. At 17, he spent Christmas break in Guatemala, working in an orphanage. For nine days, he lived in a converted torture chamber, with bullets lodged in the walls and blood stains on the floors.

The experience affected him deeply and led Birk, as a pro, to create his HIKE Foundation to help educate at-risk kids in both the Twin Cities and Baltimore.

Not that Birk himself was a model student. Once, on a dare, he got his ears pierced. In school. During math class. Another student used a stud earring to do it. Blood went everywhere. Worse, Birk's ears got infected.

"The teacher called my home to apologize," he said. "She was mortified that it had happened on her watch."

Another time, he and some buddies chose to play hookey during a snowstorm. Suspicious, Kallok, the coach, tracked them down and "offered" them a lift to school.

"My car got stuck twice," Kallok said. "So I made them get out and push."

At 16, Birk got his driver's license. One month and four accidents later, he was forced to give it up. On one occasion, distracted by a girls softball game, he plowed into the back of another car.

"I didn't drive for four more years," he said. "Bumming rides from your little brother can be kind of humbling."

Birk made do, as always.

"I remember once we were going to double date, but a girl named Elise stood him up," high school teammate John Kipka said. "My date and I insisted he come along anyway. That whole evening, Matt pretended the girl was there with him. At the restaurant, he asked for a table for four, pulled the chair out for Elise and asked if she wanted water. At the movie, he bought her popcorn.

"Talk about turning a negative into a positive. We spent the whole night laughing."

'A complete life'

At Harvard, Birk blossomed, in football, leading the Crimson to a 9-1 mark in his final year.

"Matt made a quantum leap between his junior and senior years," Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. "His turning point came as a junior, against Penn. They had a lineman, Mitch Marrow [who was later drafted in the third round by the Carolina Panthers] who beat the hell out of Matt. Something clicked there. Birkie was a different player from then on. He swore that wouldn't happen again.

"His senior year, he was a man and a half."

He certainly ate like one. Birk's appetite was legend. At Tommy's Pizza, in Cambridge, the owner challenged him to eat his "Colossal Calzone," a monstrous meal consisting of four whole chicken breasts, a pound of cheese, veggies and sauce, all wrapped in a huge, thick-crusted pizza.

Free food? Birk took the bet.

"That calzone was the size of an automobile tire," said Skelton, his roomie. "But, damned if Matt didn't eat the whole thing, while watching 'Monday Night Football.' Everybody there went nuts. They took his picture and put it on the wall.

"What the owner didn't know was that, two steps outside the restaurant, Matt threw up the whole thing in the bushes."

Minnesota drafted him in the sixth round in 1998. Birk used part of the money to buy his first car — a used Dodge truck with hand-cranked windows and 60,700 miles. The Vikings rookie haggled with the salesman forever as his parents sat by.

"Matt walked out of dealership three times before they agreed on the price," Pam Birk said.

Having made the team, Birk bought a century-old duplex in his old St. Paul neighborhood, rented most of it to friends and, for three years, made the unheated basement his home. A bed, bathroom, TV and mini-fridge were all he had. That, a salivating bulldog named Jake and a wardrobe consisting of several T-shirts, team-issued shorts, a baseball cap and some flip-flops.

"I guess I lived like the Unabomber, but I've always been a sort of minimalist," he said.

That changed when he met Adrianna. Her parents owned a local restaurant and Birk, smitten with their daughter, went there dozens of times with hopes of asking her out.

"Every time I chickened out, I figured that at least I was getting a good meal out of it," he said.

Finally, he asked, they dated, he proposed and they married. Now, the Birks have half a dozen kids, homes in Minnesota and Hunt Valley and a 40-acre fishing preserve ("My slice of heaven," he says) that he bought recently in Spring Valley, Wisc.

Five of their children's names are tattooed on Birk's left shoulder, with infant Brady's yet to come. When not on the road, he reads to them — everything from Dr. Seuss to "Robinson Crusoe" — and tucks each in at night.

Birk, who missed the entire preseason while recovering from knee surgery and is in the last year of a three-year contract worth $12 million, has not decided whether he'll continue his playing career.

"It won't depend on whether or not we win the Super Bowl, but on what's best for my family," he said. "We'll sit down after this season and talk about it. A lot of people wrote me out this year. What brought me back? A great doctor, the training staff and the grace of God. I'll always have the fire to play, but I've got to see what life with six kids is like."

Birk is to be envied, other Ravens say.

"Matt has a complete life," kicker Billy Cundiff said. "He's able to balance a marriage, the kids and a career. He calls it 'controlled chaos,' but he's authentic.

"He does things his way. It's not abrasive, and there's no air about it. He just knows what he wants to do, and he gets it done."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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